Croydon’s town centre has suffered a torrid time of late. The biggest queues at Centrale over the Christmas shopping period were for booster jabs.
It has been clear for 20 years that there is a shift from the high street to online for the retail sector, and the pandemic and its lockdowns have simply accelerated that process.
So for Croydon, things could have been worse. Imagine if Westfield had actually demolished much of central Croydon’s high street for their long-promised £1.4billion regeneration scheme – it would still be a pile of rubble now! That was certainly the experience of the people of Bradford, where Westfield left their demolished site in the Yorkshire city as just a vast gaping hole for 10 years.
With the Croydon Westfield pipedream now a thing of the past, now is time to look for real solutions for our town centre.
Town centres need people to visit them, and if retail isn’t it, or at least isn’t enough to sustain a town centre on the current scale, then there needs to be some big thinking about what purpose our town centre serves over the next few decades.
If retail is shifting online, then some of the retail jobs will be replaced by warehouse workers and delivery drivers. But what do you do with historic retail areas?
One option in London boroughs like Croydon – where there is an urgent need for more housing – might be to convert some of the disused retail areas at the margins into council housing, where that could be done to a decent standard and with green spaces built into the designs, too.
Another option might be for Croydon Council to encourage and promote the expansion of Croydon College and the South Bank University campus, and use further and higher education to drive regeneration around the town centre. Thousands of students flocking into the town centre, perhaps even with some student halls included in the accommodation mix, would create a hub of potential customers.
Other options would be to shift the balance from retail to leisure. Whether that’s cinemas, swimming pools, sports centres, parks or bowling alleys, bars and restaurants, it would be much better to have attractions in a town centre served by great public transport links, rather than in out-of-town locations that rely on providing huge car parking and creating a large carbon footprint.
The political and the economic environments are tough. We know about the state of the council’s finances and the depletion of staff capacity. In 2022, businesses are unlikely to be investing heavily when economists are forecasting a severe squeeze on living standards – that is expected to hit both retail and leisure sectors – even without a pandemic to contend with.
Torsten Bell, of the independent think tank the Resolution Foundation, says 2022 will be a year of inflation rising and pay growth slowing. Inflation is driven by soaring energy bills – with rises of up £600 (nearly 50 per cent) expected in April, just as tax rises hit incomes, too.
The energy bill rise alone will take somewhere between £30million to £50million from Croydon households.
And the continuing impact of covid on the national and local economies is impossible to predict with any real certainty.
With the number of positive tests for covid at record levels, thousands of people in Croydon spent the run-up to Christmas – and the usually lucrative post-Christmas sales period – self-isolating and unable to get to the shops even if they wanted to.
The latest figures show Croydon has the highest number of cases of any London borough and the third-highest case rate – more than 1 in 50 of us currently has covid – which means at least 2per cent self-isolating, and therefore not visiting the town centre for retail or leisure.
The pandemic has shifted our shopping habits – more of us have got used to shopping online and do so more regularly and with more confidence. What was a necessity during lockdown and in personal cases of self-isolation has become a new normal.
In the run-up to Christmas, 30 per cent of retail sales were conducted online.
At the same point in 2019, before covid-19, that figure was around 20 per cent. And that had increased from 12 per cent in late 2013, when the Croydon Westfield deal was being negotiated between the landowners, the Whitgift Foundation, Conservative MP Gavin Barwell and London’s then Tory Mayor, Boris Johnson.
Eight years ago, the then Conservative-run council and Barwell were enthusiastic cheerleaders for the marvellous bounty that the Westfield development would bring.
In 2014 – after the retail sector had already experienced a decade of decline and shift to online – some modern-day Nostradamus wrote on this very website: “Today, Croydon’s grand economic strategy is essentially knocking down a shopping centre and building another one”.
And they asked “at a time of weak consumer demand, with retail sales shifting from the High Street to the internet, is a new shopping centre really the best Croydon can do?”
You can put your praise for such foresight in the comments section below.
But really, all you had to do, even then, was look at the economic climate, shopping trends and Westfield’s own record (in Bradford, they started demolition work in 2004, promising completion by 2007; a scaled-down shopping centre was not completed until late 2015) to realise that what was being proposed from Croydon was far from the guaranteed success that successive, Conservative and Labour, council administrations professed it to be.
Yet for some, the Croydon Westfield pipedream was above any criticism.
In March 2014, Croydon Central MP Barwell chastised opposition Labour councillor Timothy Godfrey for flagging up concerns about Westfield’s conduct in Bradford, tweeting “You re-tweeted a tweet critical of Westfield in Bradford. Why?”
The then Tory MP followed this with, “There’s a company planning to invest [more than] £1billion in our town creating thousands of jobs and you’re criticising them”, he wrote, adding the hashtag “#idiot”.
It’s the sort of civilised behaviour that gets you a seat in the House of Lords, apparently.
In the end, Westfield scarpered without investing much in Croydon, with the only job created seemingly for their favoured chief exec in Katharine Street.
In the current economic climate, the state of Croydon’s town centre may be an issue that’s easier to avoid, but that makes it all the more important that the candidates for Croydon Mayor are pressed on this issue in the run-up to May’s elections.
- South Norwood resident Andrew Fisher has worked as a trades union official, researcher and writer, and served as Director of Policy of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn from 2015 to 2019. He is the author of The Failed Experiment – and how to build an economy that works
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